On The One: Prince – A Purple Reign


Published in The Sunday Herald, November 20 2011

Imagine an alternative reality in which there existed a pop star – a proper pop star, of the old, vanishing school, with that mad alien mystique – who combined in one package elements of James Brown, Sly Stone, Duke Ellington, Brian Wilson, Jimi Hendrix, Cab Calloway, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton, Charlie Chaplin, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell and a dozen or so more good ones, yet still came out like no one else.

Imagine someone able to channel Led Zeppelin and The Stones as easily as he could Marvin Gaye, but who could equally go as future-minimal as a Kraftwerk intro and still get under your skin. While you’re still imagining, throw in that, while doing all this, he was also a Cocteau Twins fan. Finally, imagine that, when the madness was really on him, he could dash off lyrics at this level of blatant genius: “You know how much I love you – more than I love my hair.”

Apologies, but I get carried away when it comes to Prince Rogers Nelson and mankind’s stubborn refusal to erect tiny statues to his fecund genius in every capital city. I know I’m not the only one. More recently than you might imagine, I once witnessed a late-night debate over the relative merits of Prince and Dexy’s Midnight Runners: a highly curious argument that started amicably, but soon turned deadly earnest, and ended, as these things can, with two people, once friends, wrestling desperately on the carpet.

Prince: A Purple Reign, director Rhodri Huw’s tidy, hour-long BBC Four profile of The Purple Yoda, is good, recommended, and deeply frustrating. The best way to watch it, I would imagine, would be not to have heard much about or by Prince at all. From that perspective, it may look like a documentary about pop on another planet.

For fans, though – especially that hardy breed who have followed Prince since he slipped under the charts’ radar, and scoured insane later records like Crystal Ball (a four CD album), for the good bits hidden among all the exploding nonsense – it doesn’t delve deep beneath the surface of the familiar.

As it flits through his career and many moustaches from 1978 to present (sadly, the last, fascinating two decades are given only 10 minutes; surely 2006’s “Black Sweat” single deserved 30 minutes on its own?), Prince himself, of course, is absent, but there’s a welter of archive clips. By and large, though, these clips are so good you wish the documentary would stop so you could just watch the footage itself. (There’s a chance to see some of it properly straight after, anyway, with a screening of 1983’s self-deifying Purple Rain movie, one of the most ridiculous and uncompromisingly stupid things the man has ever done, with some terrible acting, and – in the concert footage, at least – plainly brilliant.)

One day, surely, we’re going to get the epic Prince documentary that does some justice to the man’s cascading brilliance. In the meantime, head over to Youtube, type in “Prince Sheila Love Bizarre” and sit back for ten minutes watching the first hit that comes up. Life gets better.